Today's picture prompt (below) is a Photo by Federico on Unsplash
In cold blue light of the moon the streets appeared to be made of ice. Barefoot, I followed the old man as he made his way slowly through the alleys and passages, trying to avoid the central lowered flagstones where faeces floated in puddles of urine.
The clunk of his clogs, and the tap-tap-tap of his stick echoed around the walls, creating a strangely hypnotic music. He stopped, suddenly. Leaning on his stick for support, he turned and peered into the eerie light behind him. I ducked back into a doorway, trying not to inhale the odd mixture of odours: cabbage, spices and cat piss.
At this time of the evening, it was hard to follow someone without being noticed: this close to the curfew there were few people on the streets. If he spotted me he would lead me away from her, not to her. And no doubt he would lead me into a place where I could be taken, questioned and killed.
I took a breath and peered round the corner. The old man had vanished. I had not heard the percussion of his walk, which meant he must be close.
She must be close.
I crept towards the spot I had last seen the man. Hidden, on the left, was a passageway with steps leading up to a door.
The door was ajar.
Aware this was likely to be a trap, but seeing no other option, I eased the knife from its scabbard, hidden under my cloak and skipped lightly up the steps.
Neither light nor sound trickled from the cracks in the door. Perhaps I should mark this place, somehow. Come back in daylight. But if I was right and she was here, it was unlikely she would remain until I returned with my friends.
The regimented sound of boots on stone echoed up the streets behind me. The City Guards were out, strictly enforcing the curfew with their steel. If I wanted to leave, I should have already done so. My mind made up, I inched towards the door and, taking a deep breath, pushed the door open.
The hinges were well oiled, and did not creak. That both relieved me and worried me in equal measure. Noisy hinges were useful for alerting those who listened for them to the presence of unwanted intruders. Either, she was not here, after all, or they did not care who entered.
Inside it was dark, and very cold. This dwelling would have been carved into the rocks of the city many centuries ago. I stood for a moment, listening, and letting my eyes adjust. I could hear something, I realised. Music. And laughter. Using the walls as a guide I slid along the passage until my hand touched the warmth of wood. Another door. I pressed my ear to the door. It was from within that the music and laughter came. I adjusted the grip on my knife and let my other hand wander over the door until it found the handle. I took a deep breath and turned it and pushed the door open.
The room was lit by lamps flickering oily flames up the walls, and by a fire that sat in the middle of the room, the smoke flowing up a metal tube that led up through the high ceiling above. She sat behind a table laden with food, and jugs of what I assumed was wine. Musicians playing flutes and instruments stringed with animal gut were sat on cushions and rugs beside her. There did not seem to be any guards, or visible weapons.
Perhaps this would be easier than I thought.
The musicians continued to play their music, despite my intrusion. If she was surprised to see me - barefoot, black cloak covering my thin body, knife held out towards her - she did not show it. Her smile widened and she gestured towards the table in front of her.
“You must be hungry,” she said, her voice loud enough to carry through the music. “Come, eat. We have much to talk about.”
I sensed a movement from behind me, and turning I found the old man’s toothless face in mine. With a flick of his staff, he sent my knife spinning from my hand, across the room. She caught it, without seeming to move.
All the while the musicians played on.
I have been outwitted, I realised, as I am led by the old man to her table.
“Eat,” she said, pushing a plate towards me, with my knife. “Drink,” she said, gesturing at a goblet already full of dark red wine. “And then, my dear brother, we will talk.”